Xavier Pax’s Illusion

Luxonians— light beings that can transform into any form they wish usually matching their host’s physiology.

Spaceship: Summons docked at Newearth bay.

~~~

Xavier Pax never liked to lie, but some illusions made life easier. Wearing a dark green, form-fitting bodysuit with tall brown boots, his bulky figure appeared almost trim. He tapped his short, blunt fingers on the ship’s console and considered the slim, brown-eyed Luxonian before him. Cerulean was renowned throughout the region for honesty and integrity, a reputation many races found highly suspect. Still, Cerulean’s plea appeared sincere, and objective evidence proved the truth of his words.

Pax folded his thick, muscular arms across his chest and lifted his chin. “So, you want me to pilot my ship with your chosen crew across the universe to—where—exactly?”

Wearing baggy pants and an over-sized sweater, Cerulean strolled around the bridge, one hand sliding over the rail. “Omega may be powerful, but he isn’t immaterial. He lives someplace.” Cerulean stopped with a sigh and leaned against the captain’s chair a couple of meters in front of Pax. “My sources suggest a location—” He pointed to the controls embedded in the chair. “May I?”

Pax nodded.

Cerulean tapped the console, and the starry universe on the bridge-screen suddenly refocused.

Pax’s eyebrows rose. “That’s quite a distance and very little is known about that sector. You really want to go there?”

Cerulean gripped the rail. “It’s our best guess and as things stand, we had better do something fast. Cosmos is coming this way, and she’s bringing her appetite.”

Pax stepped forward and peered at the screen. “Which planet—?”

Cerulean started forward but stumbled.

Pax caught him under the arm. “You’re not well.”

Snorting back a laugh, Cerulean’s gaze bounced off Pax’s worried frown. “That’d be an understatement. And another reason to hurry.” He jabbed a finger at a star cluster on the right. “Here, the second planet from this sun. It’s presently known as Mirage—a world that Omega created for his amusement.”

Pax titled his head. “Created? A world?”

With an indulgent smile, Cerulean spread his hands wide. “Where’ve you been? All Newearth has been chattering about the mysterious Omega and his appearance—and disappearance—during Justine Santana’s trial.”

Pax crossed his arms. “The Cresta murderer?” He grinned.  “Personally, I wouldn’t mind being killed by something that gorgeous.”

The lift door slid open, and Justine stepped forward, her gaze flickering from Cerulean to Pax and back to Cerulean. “Am I interrupting?”

Pax stepped back with a low whistle.

Cerulean beckoned Justine forward and gestured toward the screen. “Just the woman I need. Show our good captain the coordinates for Mirage.”

Justine pursed her lips. “Please?”

Cerulean rolled his eyes. “Please.” He cleared his throat and glanced at Pax. “She’s just become a mother, so she thinks she needs to correct everyone’s gramm—”

“Manners.” Justine’s fingers flew across the console as she zoomed the screen closer to a specific star and magnified, focusing on an orbiting green planet. Slapping her hands as if to dust off the dirty work, she turned and eyed Cerulean. “Now that I am looking after my daughter’s well being, I’ve come to recognize the deficiencies of her environment.”

Cerulean placed his hands on his hips, his voice rising in indignation. “Meaning?”

“You’re the model of perfection, Cerulean, but a please and thank you every now and then won’t kill you.”

Pax stepped forward with a conciliatory wave. “Please, if you would, I’d like to be introduced.”

leaning against the railing, Cerulean gestured toward Justine. “Justine Santana—innocent human-android with visions of perfect manners—Xavier Pax—renowned ship’s captain who’d like to know where the—”

Justine wiggled a warning finger. She strolled across the bridge, her gaze sweeping over every instrument panel on the bridge. “Well, equipped and state of the art. I’m impressed.” She bestowed her full attention and a warm smile on Pax. “We’re chasing a riddle in hopes of finding a mirage.”

A light shone in Pax’s eyes accompanied by a meandering, mischievous grin. He flashed a glance at Cerulean. “If you had started with that, I would have accepted immediately.”

Cerulean nodded. His gaze strayed from Pax to Justine. “So glad. Now, if we can get Clare to cooperate, we’ll be on our way.” Cerulean started to the lift.

With a frown, Justine leaned on the railing like a woman who had no intention of moving another step. “What’s your hurry? Bala and Max are already aboard the Merrimack and have signed on two good—”

With a shudder, Cerulean turned translucent, nearly disappearing from sight. He wavered and fell full length upon the deck.

In a flash, Justine bent over him, checking his vital signs.

Pax leaned forward, frowning. “I knew he was ill.” He sighed and stepped back. “I guess you better take him in for healing before we begin chasing your mirages.”

Cerulean opened his eyes and struggled to his feet.

Justine gripped his arm and helped him stand. Her gaze flashed to Pax. “On the contrary, we’re leaving Newearth within two minutes of Clare’s arrival. She’s the last of our crew, and I told her to hurry.” She swiveled toward the lift. “Where’s Cerulean’s cabin?”

Pax swallowed, marched to a console, and scrolled through room assignments. “Second level, suite five—but wait—I hardly know you—or him—or what’s expected of me. How can I trust you?”

Justine’s steely gaze speared Pax’s wide eyes. “Same way I’m going to trust you—human who’s not humane—by sheer necessity.” Justine propelled Cerulean’s limp form to the lift and turned, firmly grasping Cerulean’s shoulder. “You think you have trust issues now, wait till you meet Clare.” She tapped the door panel. “Second level.”

After the door slid shut, Pax fell into the Captain’s chair and rubbed his temple. He snorted. “Chasing a riddle to find a mirage? Ha. I should feel right at home.”

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Critical Power

Nina perched her chin on her hands as she lay on the living room floor and stared at the television. Talk show hosts bantered playfully and then introduced their guest.

Jacob, medium built boy with big brown eyes and a sharp chin ambled in and flopped onto the couch. “What cha watching?”

“Nothing.”

The two sat and stared at the television as the discussion between the host and the guest grew heated.

Nina peered back at her brother. “What’s intolerance?”

Jacob shrugged one shoulder. “When you don’t like someone for a stupid reason.”

Nina returned her gaze to the television.

A short, heavyset woman, Belle Truman, strode into the living room with a mixing spoon in her hand. “Nina? I thought I told you to wash up for supper. We have to hurry.”

“Cool off, mom. You’re being tyrannical.”

Belle’s gaze hardened, and her scowl swung to Jacob.

Jacob’s eyes widened as he lifted his hands in self-defense. “Wasn’t me. Must be something she picked up at school.”

Belle strode over and stared down at her daughter. “Get up and do as I say, or you’ll find out what tyrannical really means.”

Slowly, Nina climbed to her feet, her cheeks turning pink. “What’s wrong?”

Her mother shook the spoon at her. “Don’t go around using words you don’t understand, hear me?” Belle turned and stalked out of the room.

Nina stood by her brother.

He put his arm around her shoulder. “Don’t take it hard, she’s just tense because they’re going to fire the principal at the meeting today.”

Nina stared up at Jacob and chewed her lip. “Why? What’s he done?”

Jacob started for the door. “Everyone says he’s too strict and old-fashioned. He’s kicked more kids out of school this semester than any principal in history. One kid painted a Hitler mustache on his picture in the hall.”

Nina squinted. “What’s wrong with mustaches?”

~~~

Principal Steven Croix was printed in bold, black letters on the gold doorplate. Behind the door, Steven sat staring down at a single sheet of paper. A knock forced his gaze upward. “Yes? Come in.”

Blithe Comfrey stepped in, her shoulder length, black hair, and straight bangs framed her petite face. “They’re all assembled. You’re coming now?” Her small eyes creased at the corners and matched her forced smile. “Don’t want to keep ‘em waiting.”

Steven lifted the paper and gave it a little shake. “You knew about this?”

Blithe stepped the rest of the way into the room. “Well, it was pretty obvious. You toss out their kids—they’re going to react.”

“So they toss me out, is that it?”

Blithe stiffened.

“You know perfectly well that I had more than enough justification for every single expulsion. I never wanted to do it. I took no pleasure—”

Blithe tapped her watch. “They’re waiting.”

~~~

As Belle seated herself in the back row, she patted Nina’s shoulder. “You go and have a good time with the other kids at the gym, okay? I’ll be along shortly.”

Nina wiped her bangs out of her eyes. “You going to help fire Mr. Croix?”

Belle’s eyes widened. She glanced quickly around. “Don’t talk like that, honey. It’s not nice.”

Nina shrugged. “Jacob says that everyone is an expert, but no one knows anything.”

Leaning in, Belle whispered in Nina’s ear. Nina trotted away.

Later that night, as Belle tucked Nina into bed, she ran a gentle finger over her little girl’s lips.

Nina yawned and snuggled under her blanket. “Are we going to get a new principal?”

Belle shook her head. “Nope.”

Nina squeezed one eye shut as if to focus her gaze on her mom. “Why not? I thought everyone said he was tyrannical?”

Belle stifled her laughter with one hand. “You say the oddest things, kiddo.” Her smile faded. “When it came down to it, the parents had not a shred of evidence that Principal Stevens had done anything wrong. There were really only two expulsions, and they were both justified.”

“Jacob says that everyone’s a critic but not many people really care. He says that if you care, you see things through instead of tossing people out.”

Standing up, Belle clasped her hands in front of her, a soft smile glowing in her eyes. “You know, I need to find out who’s been teaching that boy all these radical ideas.”

Nina slipped her hands under her head and closed her eyes. “You, Mom.”

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Same Spirit

Mrs. Eula Claymore pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose and peered at the dessert tray. Is that a lemon bar or pineapple upside-down cake? Her gaze swiveled around the large hall lined with long, white tables. Some of the elderly customers lingered over their meatloaf or breaded chicken, but she preferred to accomplish her meal—like ticking a duty off her list—and then enjoy her dessert with coffee. She returned to the tray and blinked rapidly, hoping to discern her choices better.

“Can’t decide, dear?” Mrs. Caroline Ramsey smiled graciously down on the old woman as she laid a steaming cup of coffee to her right.

Making a quick grab, Eula ended the struggle. “No, thank you, Mrs. Ramsey. Just weighing my options.” Her laugh sounded hollow. Weighing. Ha! Yes, have to weigh everything these days. The battle of the bulge was relentless.

Caroline’s paper-thin physique and tight smile swayed closer. “Oh, please, call me Carol, everyone does, and it sounds so much more romantic.” She raised her eyebrows archly.

Eula suppressed a snort, tapped her sticky fingers together and considered her baptismal name—Eulamay. With a quick thrust, she jammed the sweet treat into her mouth—and regretted it instantly. Her mouth pursed into the fiercest pucker she had ever endured. Lord in Heaven, where did they get these lemons? The devil’s kitchen? She peered up, her eyes filled with stinging tears. She must have water, or she’d expire on the spot. Unfortunately, Carol had hurried off to another table to intercede in a senior squabble before something got spilled.

“Mind if I sit here?” A large, buxom woman pointed to the seat across from her.

Eula nodded, attempting to stretch her lemon pucker into a smile.

The woman laughed as she pulled out a chair and laid her black handbag on the table. “Oh, you had a lemon bar, too, I see.”

With multiple swallows, Eula tried to eek out a sound akin to human speech.

The woman turned and scurried away.

Eula watched the blurry figure bundle off and wondered if she would have done better to stay at home like her friend Lola. Of course, Lola’s great-grandkids had visited her over on the weekend, so naturally, she would be prostrate for a week or so…. Eula’s thoughts were interrupted as a cool glass was slipped into her hand.

“Here, that ought to help. I thought I’d drink the whole Mississippi dry getting that taste outta my mouth.” The large woman plunked down in the metal frame chair.

Trying desperately not to slurp, Eula drained the contents in unspeakable relief. She wiped her eyes with her embroidered handkerchief and regarded her savior as best as she was able. “Thank you. I was wondering if I’d be left to die.” She waved a languid hand. “Not that it wouldn’t be rather appropriate, dying in a community hall, but somehow it wasn’t what I had in mind when I came this morning.”

The woman’s hearty laughter brought a smile to Eula’s face, as well as turned several heads. “No problem. We older ladies have to stick together, don’t we? So few of us left.” She stretched out a hand and leaned forward. “My name’s Mary Burns from Dartmouth County—off the blacktop at the end of Vet’s Road.

Eula peered up and appraised the woman before. Large, wispy gray hair, an honest, though blurry face, the usual stretch pants and loose flowered blouse—in short—a possible friend. Eula smiled and pressed the offered hand. “I’m Mrs. Eula Claymore from—”

Mary waved excitedly. “Oh, I know all about you. I’ve lived around here nearly ten years, but my husband, Melvin, passed away last year. Lola Kinsman was so kind. From the church—you know. She thinks the world of you, she does. That’s why I came by. She phoned and said she couldn’t make it, but she wanted me to introduce myself.”

Nodding, Eula wrapped a stray lock of hair back into her neat bun. “Her great-grandkids visited Saturday. I suspect she’ll be laid up awhile.” Nodding, she turned and appraised the crowd. “But I’m glad to meet you. I’ve been coming for years, but I never seem to— Anyway, Lola’s always been with me.”

Mary sighed. “To be honest, I’m rather out of place. I used to cook for Melvin and the boys, and there were usually hands and helpers about. Our trestle table would be full to bursting, and I managed it every day, seven days a week, but now, after a little slip and a hip replacement, my sons’ wives have decided it’s too much for me.” She peered around the room. “I don’t particularly take to being served.”

Eula smacked her lips. “Especially not lemon bars that could suck the life out of you.”

The two women hunched forward and failed to suppress their giggles.

Regaining her composer, Eula leaned back. “It’s cataract surgery for me. Can hardly see my hand before my face.” She gestured to the small crowd. “I served most of these people when I ran the school lunchroom. And I managed the parent group and the sewing circle. Never stopped for a moment, except—”

A racket at the end of the hall pulled their attention forward. One of the men stood stiffly, staggered, jerked, and then fell into a crumpled heap. Eula gasped. Mary rose like a puppet on strings.

Carol rushed across the hall, wended her way through the startled crowd, and took charge. At least three people had their cell phones in hand and were dialing.

After the emergency team had carried off the unfortunate gentleman, Carol circled around and spoke with each table. The crowd shuffled away in turn. When Carol made it to their table, Eula shook her head. “Will ol’ Bertie be all right?”

Carol shook her head and wiped a red-rimmed eye. “They said he was dead before he hit the floor.” She peered at them and forced a smile. “I guess we all have to go sometime.”

Eula wrung her hands together. “Bertie was such a fun boy and a hardworking man—but he never wanted to linger.”

Mary sighed. “None of us do.”

Carol stared down at them. “Don’t talk like that. You’re not lingering. You’re living.” Pulling out a chair, she plunked down and put her head into her hands. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I took this on. I thought it’d be fun: serving the ladies and gents in the community, making money on the side, getting out of my empty nest.”

Mary tilted her head at an appreciative angle. “But—”

Carol ran her fingers through her short, brown hair. “But, I can’t keep pace. This is the third customer I’ve lost in two months. And I don’t mean that the way it sounds. It’s just…I get to know people, and then I lose them. It feels—useless.” Her eyes brimmed with tears. “Help me out here.”

Eula leaned over and patted Carol’s hand. “It’s not useless. You’re right. We are living—and dying. Hard for young people to understand, but we’re as new to old age, as they are are to adulthood, and you are to middle age. Same spirit, greater experience perhaps, but encased in bodies that break down and wither.”

Mary wrapped her fingers over her purse and clutched it to her chest. “I know that the gentleman’s death is tragic, but I can’t go back; I must go forward. Knowing that I can join you, ladies, a couple times a week—well, it’ll make the journey less lonely.” She patted Carol’s shoulder. “Don’t fret. None of knows how to keep pace. That isn’t the point, is it?”

After Mary had lumbered away, Carol stood and helped Eula to her feet. She took her friend’s arm and led her to the door. “Will you be able to make it home, all right, Eula?”

Eula pressed Carol’s warm hand and focused her blurry gaze on the woman in front of her. “Yes, I can make it home. See you on Friday—Carol.”

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Jeremy Quinn

Jeremy Quinn shoved his dinner tray aside and leaned back on a metal chair, a petulant scowl pressing his eyebrows into a v-formation. He glowered at the steel-gray mess hall of Bothmal Prison. Rotating his jaw, he swallowed his last distasteful bite of dinner.

A man about his age, but taller and thinner, wearing the same standard blue guard uniform, ambled up and pulled out a chair opposite Quinn while balancing a dinner tray.

Quinn cleared his throat.

The thin man glanced up. “You mind?”

Quinn nudged the chair out with the toe of his steel-tipped boot, his jaw still working in a circular motion. “Not much.”

Thrusting his hand out and accompanied by a stiff smile, the man leaned forward. “Name’s Scott. Nice to meet you. Just started yesterday.”

Quinn’s eyes traveled over the angular, dark-haired man. His nose wrinkled. He could smell fear a kilometer away. “It’ll feel like you’ve been here an eon by the end of the week.”

Undeterred, Scott sat and laid out his dinner—fork on the left, knife on the right, a cup of steaming coffee upper right, salad upper left, a plate of synth-meat and vegetables front and center, fruit cup lower left, napkin unfolded neatly in his lap.

Quinn’s jaw dropped as his eyes followed every precise movement of his tablemate. “By the Divide, you dining with the Luxonian Supreme Council or something?”

With a self-deprecating shrug, Scott dug into his meal with relish. He chewed slowly, carefully, his gaze surveying the room with the hint of a smile. Swallowing, he positioned himself for another foray; his gaze merely glanced off Quinn. “Pigs eat at a trough; humans should reflect their higher status.”

Quinn rolled his eyes.

Two guards dropped their trays in a recycle bin that sucked everything down a shoot with a swish. They placed their hands against the print identifier, and when the door slid open, they shuffled over the threshold.

Quinn leaned forward, his elbows braced on the table. “The only difference between us and the animals locked in cages around here is the color of our uniform—and the fact that we haven’t been caught yet.”

Scott methodically chewed another bite, swallowed, and pointed his fork at Quinn. “Speak for yourself.”

Running his fingers through his short hair, Quinn tilted his head. “You’re from Lux, right?”

“Born and bred. Second generation. Though my parents have a huge Oldearth sanctuary on—”

Quinn knocked his empty cup aside. “My family was run off Lux with barely the clothes on their backs during the Crestonian Crisis. Said we were a threat to planetary security.” Taking a more relaxed pose, Quinn laced his fingers behind his head. “They feared us. Humans were getting too numerous, so—”

Scott laid his fork aside and took a sip of his coffee. “Our family was large, my Uncle George has thirteen kids. In fact, they encouraged—”

“Who’d he work for?”

Scott dug into the fruit salad. “Bio-engineering Dep—”

“Oh, sure, yeah! Bio-engineers can do anything!” Quinn lowered his voice and leaned in further. “Listen, newbie, Bothmal doesn’t give a—”

A red light flashed over the door accompanied by a repeated buzzing sound.

Quinn frowned and rose to his feet. “Bothmal belongs to the strongest—not the smartest.” His gaze swiveled around the empty room. “You’re not on Lux. Remember that.”

The door slid open and a Crestonian wearing prisoner’s garb hustled in. He leaned against the door, huffing, and eyed Quinn and Scott. Rotating a long metal object in two tentacles, he straightened up.

Quinn stepped to Scott’s side and nudged him shoulder-to-shoulder, speaking out of the side of his mouth. “Crestonians are ingenious at fashioning weapons outta garbage. Ironic, eh?”

Scott held up his hands. “Maybe I can talk him down. He’s gonna get killed if he tries anything.”

Quinn’s eyes gleamed. “Oh, he’s dead alright. No question about that.” He shoved Scott ahead. “You talk to him. I’ll be right back.”

Scott glared at Quinn’s retreating back, then turned and faced the prisoner, one hand sliding to his sidearm. “Listen, I’m new here, but I know every rule on record, and I want us both to get out of this room alive, okay? If you just hand over the weapon, I promise—”

The door opened, Quinn charged through, and tackled the Crestionian from behind, knocking him down. They rolled across the floor with Scott pulling out his Dustbuster, edging up and backing away, as the two opponents grappled across the room and into the airy, institutional kitchen. A wall hole labeled “Recycle Your Refuse” glowed in neon letters on the wall. Jabbing his Dustbuster under the Crestoniona’s chin, Quinn dragged the prisoner to the opening.

The Crestonian struggled frantically, trying to get his skewer against Quinn’s midsection.

Scott dashed in and held his Dustbuster against the Crestonian’s head and shouted at Quinn. “Enough! We got him.”

Quinn braced himself, and with a mighty shove, he leaned the Crestonian against the hole and fired. What was left of the body was instantly suctioned into the hole.

Scott fell against the wall and stared open-mouthed at Quinn. “What the—?” He waved his Dustbuster in the air. “We had him. He knew it! We could’ve ended this without—”

Quinn, gulping deep breaths of air, grinned like a child winning a game. “Look at the sign, idiot.”

Scott pushed off the wall, his eyes wide with fury. “He was a prisoner. He wasn’t sentenced to death by the court! What gives you the right—?”

Quinn shook his head as he straightened up and swaggered back to the mess hall.

Four guards rushed in with Dustbusters at the ready. The lead man stared at Quinn. “We thought you were dead! Somehow that freak managed to cut the monitors.” His eyes roved the room. “Where—?”

Quinn chuckled. “He’s being recycled. More useful this way.” He tucked his Dustbuster away as the other guards relaxed with relieved smiles spreading across their faces.

Scott stood with his Dustbuster dangling at his side, glaring at Quinn.

With a shrug, Quinn turned and met Scott in the middle of the room. He leaned in and whispered. “Never let an opportunity slip by.” Putting an arm around Scott’s shoulder, he walked him back to their table. “Since I saved your midsection, you can clean up.” Her patted Scott on the shoulder and then started toward the door. “Oh, and not a word. Remember, the only difference between them and us is the color of our uniform.”

The door slid shut. Scott plopped down on his chair and shoved his dinner tray away.

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Short Story: Vera’s Wings

Vera tossed in her sleep, her dreams disturbed by flickering flashes of light and an acrid smell that wrinkled her nose. Sweat prickled her arms and legs till she panted and threw off her covers. Suddenly, she sat bolt upright, her eyes wide and staring. Swirling smoke stung them instantly.

Flames danced and darted like flickering fingers from under the door. Skittering to the chair by her desk, she pulled on her skirt and blouse and began screaming. “Pav! Pav, where are you? Help me!”

In the echoing house, she heard only the fire crackling on the other side of the door. Gripping the handle, she pulled and then screamed as the hot metal seared her hand. Grabbing another shirt from her dresser, she wrapped her throbbing hand and darted forward. Gripping the handle again, her whole body trembled. With a snapping, click, the knob turned, the door flew open, and a rush of heat and flame knocked her backward.

In horrified amazement, Vera stared at the flames. The LuKan had a natural fear of fire. Their tender flesh burned so easily that even sunburn could cause serious health issues. Crawling backward, she scurried to the back of the room and rose to her feet, the flames flickering toward her.

“Pav?” her hand clutched at her throat. She inched over to the window and stared down. It was a six-meter drop at least. In the dark, it looked like an endless chasm.

A sound of clattering boots running up the steps made her glance at the doorway. The door had swung shut again, but now the wood was engulfed in flames. A man called through the smoke and fire.

“Vera? Are you here?”

Vera’s shoulders slumped in relief. The blacksmith. “I’m here, Mr. Pollex. I can’t get out, and Pav’s not answering.” Vera clapped her hands together and winced as the blisters made contact.

A grunt and pounding shattered the air. Mr. Pollex shouted. “Pav? Pav, can you hear me?” A splintering thwack thudded against Pav’s door.

Vera closed her eyes and wiped sweat from her dripping face.

More splintering crashes and the sound of boots running across the floor. Shouts, grunts, and then silence.

Wrapping her long three fingered hands around her middle, Vera hugged herself. She swallowed against the bile that rose in her throat and ran to the window, sucking in fresh air.

Clattering boots and heaving grunts stopped outside her door. “Vera? Vera, stand back!”

Vera pressed her back against the window frame, her shoulders shaking.

A thwack smashed through the wood door, and a sharp, red-tipped blade shone through the flames. Uncounted thrusts tore at the wood until it fell aside like a torn curtain.

Lucius Pollex stepped through the flames. His red-rimmed eyes had scoured the room before they landed on Vera huddled against the back wall. He ran to her, gripped her arm, and lifted her to her feet. “Hurry, this timber frame won’t hold much longer.”

She froze at the flaming doorway. Without a word, Lucius stepped behind Vera and scooped her in his arms, enfolding her little body within his, and sprang through the red and orange darts of fire. Once outside the door, he dropped her in a clear space on the landing and bent over a prone figure.

Vera gasped. “Pav!”

Before she could run over, Lucius lifted Pav’s limp body over his shoulder and reached out for Vera. She shook herself, fighting nausea that bubbled up from her middle. As they descended the steps, she tripped and fell forward. Instantly, Lucius grabbed her around the waist, and, squeezing her body against his, he jogged down the last steps and through the front doorway into the smoky, night air.

Falling on her knees, Vera choked and sobbed, her hands over her face. She rocked back and forth, oblivious to everything except overwhelming pain and fear.

Shouting to her left forced her to look up. A small crowd huddled over a prone form laid out on the grass. Screaming, Vera scrambled like an injured animal toward the body. “Pav! Pav, get up. Talk to me. Pav!”

The crowd backed away.

Blinded by tears, Vera felt along Pav’s body, and finally, coming to his face, she lifted herself to peer into his face. If only she could look into his eyes and make a connection.

Pav’s arms were stretched out to the side, his legs lay limp and bent, his face turned up and his eyes wide open, but they saw nothing—not the stars that twinkled overhead, nor his sister’s tears as they landed on his cheek.

A firm but gentle hand gripped Vera’s shoulder.

She slid to the ground, her head landing on her brother’s chest, sobbing, clinging with her bleeding fingers.

The hand stayed with her, gentle, undemanding, warm and real in a nightmare of searing pain.

The murmuring crowd shuffled away. Someone bent low, and a woman’s voice whispered. “You want me to take her home with me? I’ve got room—”

Vera shivered.

Lucius tightened his grip. “Give her time. I’ll watch over her tonight.”

A man’s voice spoke in the air above her head. “It’s about out, nothing to do now but make plans to rebuild.”

Lucius murmured a soft, “Tomorrow.”

Footsteps padded away, voices chattering in an undertone. “Poor thing. Wonder how it started…”

Pav’s body, already cold, was growing stiff.

Vera shivered, opened her eyes, and blinked at the black night, tears slipping down her blistered cheek.

An arm reached around her shoulders and carefully pulled her off her brother’s body. Gently pulling her close, Lucius braced himself against a shed wall and wrapped his muscled, fire-seared and scoot-coated arms around her, pressing her head to his chest.

Vera could feel his chest rising and falling and hear his heart beating in a steady rhythm. His warmth settled over her shivering frame and calmed her. Relaxing, she closed her eyes and let the nightmare end.

~~~

An early bird chirped in the treetops. Vera opened her eyes and stared over Lucius’ charcoal-blackened shirt into a hazy world of drifting smoke, green grass, treetops, and a red sunrise.

Rising on her elbow, Vera studied the stubble-bearded face of Lucius Pollex. His warm chest still rose and fell rhythmically as she shifted her arm and looked around. Her hands stung. She stared at the red blisters on one hand and the angry red blotches over the other and her arms. Wiggling her toes, she was amazed that they didn’t hurt—nothing like her hands. Her gaze drifted over Lucius. She sucked in a horrified gasp. Lucius’ legs ended in smoldering stumps. “Oh, no….” Fresh tears welled in her eyes.

Lucius stirred and groaned. His eyes snapped open, and his arm squeezed protectively around Vera. When their gazes connected, he sucked in a deep breath and darted a glance around the field and burned timber. “You’re alive then?”

Vera nodded. She wiped her face with the back of her hand and sat up, her eyes searching.

Pav still lay stretched out in the field. She started forward, but Lucius held her back. “Wait. I’ll help.” He stood and assisted her to her feet. Peering down at her thin, burned face, he shook his head. “You need care, too, or I’ll be digging more than one grave this day.” Rubbing a tear from her cheek, he stared down, somber, and sighed. “And that, I won’t have.”

Vera stared at his burned stumps, her eyes wide in horror.

Lucius pulled up a charred pant leg and revealed a metal band connecting an artificial limb to the stump of his leg. “They were burned in an accident some time ago.” He raised his gaze to the blue sky and exhaled. “I was never happy about it, but now, I’m glad. If I didn’t have such feet, I could never have walked across a burning floor to save you.”

Lucius gaze fell over Pav’s body. “Only—I wish I had wings.”

Vera stepped over to her brother’s body and knelt down. She lifted Pav’s hand and kissed it. Looking over her shoulder, a shaky smile trembled on her lips. “Don’t feel too bad. The LuKan believe in the Immortal Life—today, Pav has wings for us both.”

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Short Story: Visions of Grandeur

Loren crouched low as she snuck up behind the enemy, one finger poised over the trigger. She knew all too well the price she’d pay if she missed.

The enemy swarmed off to the right—they’d be beautiful if they weren’t so dang dangerous. She had children to protect. Creeping ahead, she spied their base of operations.

Got ‘em now!

Exhilaration pumped adrenaline into Loren’s bloodstream. She rose to her feet, both hands braced over the canister, aimed, and fired. Direct hit!

The swarm didn’t know what happened. They dropped onto the porch floor and buzzed furiously until Loren swept them into the front garden bed with her foot. She exhaled a long, cleansing breath. Thank—

“Mom! You know it’s wrong to kill bugs. They’re a part of nature, and we’re supposed to respect them!”

Loren turned and faced her irate eleven-year-old daughter; the wasp spray canister hung limply in her left hand.

Kara, a self-appointed bug expert, propped her hands on her hips like a furious schoolteacher. She had watched numerous YouTube videos and read articles on-line about native, Illinois insects. In her spare time, she copied photos and made collages, which she hung up around the house underlined with dire warnings about the loss of native species.

Loren chewed her lip and rubbed her jaw as if it had been struck. “Listen, young lady, I got stung this morning, and your baby brother got stung yesterday. Insects may have some rights, but I’m the protector of this family and—”

Kara rolled her eyes and wandered away.

Loren clutched the spray canister so tightly that she accidentally sprayed the floor. Marching into the kitchen, she placed the bug spray on a high shelf and then turned to the sound of the dryer buzzing. She glanced at the stovetop clock, dashed downstairs, piled the warm laundry into a plastic tub, tossed the wet laundry into the dryer, shoved the last load of dirty clothes into the wash, set the timers and scurried back upstairs.

Baby Addison screamed as he climbed the last rail of his crib. Teetering on the edge, he nearly overbalanced before Loren dashed into the blue room and scooped him into her arms. “Whoa, Baby Boy, what do you think you’re doing? Besides giving me a heart attack….”

After a quick lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches, homemade pickles, sliced peaches, and milk, Loren placed Addison in the middle of the room with enough toys to keep a thirteenth-century emperor ecstatically happy and turned her attention to her computer. Onto the next battle—family finances. Well, somebody’s got to balance the books.

Two hours and momentous account juggling later, Loren looked up as Kara sauntered in with a neighbor boy. They both had their iPhones so close to their faces that Loren wondered how they had ever managed to walk into the room without bumping into a wall.

Kara peered over the rim of her screen. “Marvin is staying for dinner. His dad and mom had a big fight and started throwing things.”

Loren froze, though her eyes wandered over Marvin’s bulky frame and unkempt hair. “You want to talk about it, Marvin?”

Marvin shrugged, his eyes still glued to the screen in front of his face. “They hate each other. What’s to talk about?”

Loren’s head dropped to her chest. She felt tears well up, but she brushed them aside as her gaze swept the room. Uh, oh…where’s Addison?

Her heart pounding, she stepped passed Marvin, giving his shoulder a little squeeze as she went by. “I’m making fried chicken. You can stay as long as you need.”

When she entered the bathroom, she knew what she would find, though she clenched her hands in prayer. Please, God, let me get it cleaned up before James gets home.

It wasn’t as bad as she feared, though the wallpaper would never be the same. Thank heaven for disinfectants!

A car rolled over the gravel in the driveway, and Loren bustled with Addison into the blue room. She changed his stinky clothes at the speed of light, rushed into the kitchen, pulled the thawed chicken pieces out of the refrigerator, sprinkled spicy breading over them, poured oil in the pan, and popped muffins onto a tray. When James entered, she put Addison on the floor so he could toddle right into his daddy’s arms, a sacred tradition that James loved.

By the time James had changed and come back downstairs in comfortable jeans and a t-shirt, the table was set, the chicken was frying, a large tossed salad graced the center of the table, and a pyramid of muffins sat ensconced next to a jar of strawberry jam, front and center of James’ place.

At dinner, Addison gummed his crackers and chicken pieces with childish abandon while Marvin chomped on his chicken legs in morose silence. Kara nibbled carrot sticks and muffins slathered in jam, distaining, once again, the flesh of sacred animals. She wrinkled her nose at Addison until her dad told her to stop.

James pushed back from the table and patted his lean belly. “That was fantastic, sweetheart, thanks. His eyes followed Loren as she began to clear the dishes. “Oh, and thanks for mowing the front lawn. I wanted to get to it, but with all the extra work—”

Loren shrugged. “It’s fine. I’ll try to get to the back tomorrow, but I’ll have to squeeze it in before I take Addy in for his check-up.”

James swirled his water glass. “Oh, and could you invite Carl’s new wife—” he snapped his fingers together with a puzzled frown.

Loren glanced over. “Chelsea?”

“Yeah, right, I can never remember. Anyway, invite her to your next Lady’s Tea. I take it that the other wives have shunned her for a—shall we say—checkered past. If you act nice, they might follow.”

Loren filled the sink with soapy water and nodded. “Called into diplomatic service once again, eh? You know that’s what I first wanted—”

Addison’s wail cut short the conversation as James lifted the baby from his high chair and offered to walk Marvin back home.

Later that night as Loren brushed her teeth, she could hear sniffles from Kara’s bedroom. She tiptoed into the dark interior, trying not to bang into the desk or the multitudinous science experiments, which Kara laid like traps for her unwary parents. Shuffling forward in low gear, she found Kara’s bed and inched her hand up to Kara’s shoulder. “What’s wrong, honey?” She perched on the edge knowing full well that she was sitting on at least three stuffed animals.

Kara wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and sniffed. “Jean texted me that I’m nothing but an amateur, and I’ll never amount to anything.”

Loren frowned. She didn’t know Jean, as she didn’t know most of the kids that Kara interacted with over her iPod. “Well, darling, you may be an amateur now, but if you study and keep working hard, you may become a professional someday. It all depends on much you—”

Kara waved her hands in contemptuous disdain. “Oh, you don’t understand. You’ll never understand. I want to be great at something. I don’t want to just make a living…or be like you.

Loren took the body blow with only a slight grimace. She swept a lock of Kara’s hair out of her face and took a deep breath. “You know, I like to think I’m doing something great—here—at home. It may not seem like much but—”

Kara shook her head. “You’re just a mom, there’s nothing great about it. Millions of women have done it—forever. I want something more, something grand and—”

Loren let her head drop as she listened to her daughter’s dreams and aspirations. They all sounded wonderful and noble, something that might make headlines one day. There was so much she wanted to say, to share about her own life and her experiences, which had lead her to the edge of her daughter’s bed, but Kara wouldn’t understand, not now. Maybe someday. When Kara talked herself sleepy, Loren squeezed her hand and tiptoed back into her bedroom and finished brushing her teeth.

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Short Story: Grace Nelson’s Murder

 

I’ve got blood on my hands, pure and simple, but I’m not sorry. Grace Nelson pushed her father’s wheelchair up a gentle incline toward a small, yellow house set aside on a winding, pave-stoned lane. It looks like a picture on an Oldearth vintage postcard. Grace sniffed. So Bhuaci. She squared her shoulders. By the Divide, I hate it here. So blinking perfectI could smash it. Her eyes traveled over to a Bhuaci family strolling down the lane hand-in-hand. Or them.

Grace? Why’d you stop? I’m hungry and it’s getting hot.” Old-man Nelson swiveled his head back as far as it would go.

Grace leaned in and shoved the chair up the last steps to the brown and white front door. “Just tired, Dad. Not as young as I once was, you know.”

The old man chuckled. “None of us are.”

Grace turned the chair sharply about, opened the door, and started back over the threshold.

Nelson pointed a shaky finger at a Bhuac male in a trim, green uniform, brown, military-style boots, and with a severe haircut strolling toward them. “What’s he want?”

Grace shuddered.

“Lawman? That you?” Nelson’s wide grin accompanied his beckoning wave. “It’s been some time since you wandered down this way, Sir.”

Lawman offered a professional smile, but his gaze swept over Grace with anxious wrinkles around his eyes. He shook the old man’s hand. “It has.” He cleared his throat. “Sorry to hear about your wife. I was off-planet—”

Nelson waved the concern aside. “It’s better this way. She doesn’t have to slave away over a decrepit, old fool anymore.”

Lawman’s eyes flashed to Grace again.

Grace’s impenetrable stare focused on the park across the road.

Lawman gestured weakly with a pained look in his eye. “With Grace here, you’ll always be well looked after.”

Nelson’s chuckle sounded like a cackle. “She’s wasting her life on me—but I can’t seem to get her to leave.” His grin widened as he stared Lawman in the eye. “So, what can we help you with? Or is this a social call?”

Lawman’s back straightened. “I just wanted to check in and see if I can be of service. You’re one of our first human settlers on Helm, and I’d hate—”

Nelson’s voice boomed. “Don’t be ridiculous! We’re not going anywhere; are we Grace? Quite happy here. Couldn’t stand Lux with that bright sun in my eyes every minute and all those high and mighties zipping about. Never knew when one might be in the room with you. Now, you Bhuacs may be shapeshifters, but at least you have respect for human sensibilities. You maintain your form, and nice forms they are too, quite pleasing—”

Lawman’s eyes strayed over to Grace. “You’re happy here, Grace?”

Grace’s stiff smile matched her stony gaze. “I’m happy wherever I’m needed.” She sucked in a deep breath. “And, at the moment, I am needed in the kitchen. It must be past noon.”

Lawman nodded. “Certainly. Don’t let me keep you. Good day.” He dropped a smile on Nelson and backed away.

Grace maneuvered the wheelchair over the threshold and started to close the door.

Suddenly, Lawman gripped the edge and leaned in, peering into Grace’s face. “Oh, and Grace, we know…about it.” He nodded decisively. “You mustn’t let it ever happen again.”

An icy gleam narrowed Grace’s eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous.” She swung her father’s chair around and let the heavy door fall shut. Her shoulders hunched up near her ears as she pushed the chair into a large, well-lit kitchen with a built-in oven next to a six-foot cabinet. She parked the wheelchair next to a cushioned recliner with a small table attached on one end.

Nelson swiveled his body from the wheelchair onto the recliner and plopped down with a long sigh. He snatched a datapad from the table and began to scroll through.

Grace pulled a container from a freezer unit, popped it into the wall-oven, and tapped a console. Efficiently, she laid the counter and her father’s table with bowls, utensils, and linen napkins. As she poured golden liquid into sparkling, crystal glasses, her father snorted. Her head snapped up.

Nelson’s eyes stayed glued to his datapad, but a smile played around his lips. “Silly fool. What’s he think he’s going do? Send me back to Lux? Imprison you?”

Grace froze. Her eyes rolled over to her father. “What are you talking about?”

Nelson slapped the datapad onto his lap with one eyebrow cocked. “Oh, please. You didn’t honestly think you could murder my wife without anyone noticing, did you?”

Grace reached out and leaned heavily on the counter, barely a breath escaping between her lips. “Oh, God.”

Nelson waived the sentiment away. “God had little to do with it, I’m sure. Besides, I’m not angry. Frankly, the old biddy was driving me mad. I’m sure that every Bhuac this side of the Divide felt sorry for me. You know, Lawman tried to talk me out of marrying Mara. Said she was unstable.” Nelson snorted. “Right about that! She may have looked like a nymph on steroids, but she acted like an Ingoti drug—”

Grace squared her shoulders and faced her father. “How long have you known?” Her blinking eyes searched the room as she wrung her hands together. “You don’t think Lawman will—”

Nelson’s eyes softened as he beckoned his daughter nearer. “Listen, it was my fault, really. I thought she’d liven up my final years. How was I to know she’d—”

Grace slapped the counter and swallowed, her gaze fixed on her father’s side table. “I poisoned her.”

“Aw, heck, she was poisoning me. Well, my sunset years, so to speak. Forget about it.” Nelson picked up his datapad and tapped it. “It won’t happen again. It’s not like you’re a serial killer or anything.” He grinned and darted a glance at his daughter before returning to his pad. “Then I’d have to poison you.”

Grace’s cooled gaze traveled from her father’s bowl to the cabinet and back to his bowl.

~~~

When Omega’s shadow appeared in Grace Nelson’s bedroom that night, she stifled a scream. Catching her breath, she gritted her teeth. “Lawman, is that you? Trying to scare me—”

Omega, dressed in a flowing, purple tunic with green leggings and orange slippers held up a long-fingered hand and huffed. “Hardly!” He circled the perimeter of the room. “I’ve been watching you, Grace Nelson, and I think you’re on the brink of great self-discovery.” He stroked his chin. “Or self-destruction.”

Grace took a step closer, her hands balled into fists. “Who the h—?”

Omega flourished a graceful bow. “My name is Omega, last son of…oh, never mind. Listen, human, I’m trying to save your miserable life and offer you a chance. The Bhuaci are notoriously suspicious of strangers, and you certainly put their hackles up by killing one of their own, even though they admit—privately of course—that Mara’s moons weren’t in proper alignment—as they say.”

Grace sat on the edge of her bed and rubbed her temple. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Omega flicked his index finger upwards and a small town appeared floating in mid-air. Humans bustled in and out of markets, and cars rolled down the dusty roads.

Grace stood up, fascinated, staring at the scene. “Is that a hologram—from somewhere?”

Omega pursed his lips. “That, my dear woman, is Mirage-Reborn—your new home.”

“Home? Don’t be stupid. Why would I go there? It looks primitive. There’s not even—”

Omega snapped his fingers and the town disappeared. “Because, Grace Nelson, if you don’t go there, you will be murdered here.”

Grace froze. “But my father….”

Omega laughed. “Don’t worry; we’ll bring him along. After all, he’s the reason you need to leave. Your mother didn’t die in her sleep like he says—she was very much awake—poor thing. Father like daughter, I always say.” Throwing his arm over her shoulder, he led her back to bed. “Get some sleep, Grace, and I’ll arrange everything in the morning.”

Grace stumbled onto her bed, pulled her covers close under her chin, closed her eyes, and wondered who she should trust—this stranger named Omega or the father she had never really known.

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Historical Fiction

ARAM http://amzn.to/2lTHVXR

Ishtar’s Redemption http://amzn.to/2kHKLtN

Neb the Great http://amzn.to/2kS1Ylm

Georgios I—Hidden Heritage http://amzn.to/2lscPWg

Georgios II—A Chosen People http://amzn.to/2lTK0mu

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00